Wayne Cruz took a step backward and began to laugh. “Darn kids.” He dipped a small brush into a bucket of brown paint after covering “Free Boo,” “Baby Slick” and “UGD” on the façade of a preschool on Sixth and E streets – an area he identified as a hot spot for gang activity and graffiti vandals. He laughed because the schoolchildren inside who call him “Mr. Paint Man” had used blue crayon to ink their names beside the graffiti.
Maybe it was the white car that idled nearby while Cruz was painting, but he was certain the school would get hit again, and that another game of cat-and-mouse would begin.
Cruz, 53, is the special projects coordinator for the . He’s often spotted with his 16-foot trailer – a personal laboratory of paint, tools and a powerful hose that shoots water that can reach up to 300 degrees. He patrols the streets of Union City to clean up graffiti and other marks of vandalism, which the police department or residents report to him.
Each day, Cruz responds to an average of five to 10 phone messages about new graffiti on buildings, fences, benches and, sometimes, freeway exit signs on I-880.
Graffiti has been an ongoing problem for many years in Union City, according to Lt. Ben Horner of the .
“It’s certainly enough to keep [Cruz] out there every day, cleaning it up, which is a huge help to the city,” Horner said. “He’s actually our not-so-secret weapon.”
Each day, Cruz patrols the main thoroughfares first. On a recent weekday, he drives down Alvarado-Niles Road to paint over three large pieces. By 1:30 p.m., he’s already painting over the 64th piece of graffiti of the day. Cruz said it totals 485 square feet of graffiti. After the President’s Day Holiday, Cruz painted over 985-square-feet.
“They had a ball,” Cruz said.
By Cruz’s estimate, 90 percent of the graffiti in Union City is gang-related.
Recently, on the corner of Third and D streets, gang members taunted police with graffiti, writing “187,” which is slang for murder based on the California Penal Code, along with the initials of officers’ names crossed out below it.
That type of graffiti generally occurs after police do gang-related sweeps, Lt. Ben Horner said.
“We have officers arresting gang members and they’re generally the ones getting targeted,” Horner said. “[Gang members] usually retaliate by coming out like rats in the night and spray-painting people’s private property."
Ironically, some of those who report graffiti are gang members themselves, Cruz said. He receives frequent calls from gang members asking him to remove tags in their neighborhoods from rival gangs, he said.
“He just wants to clean it up regardless of who did it,” Horner said. “He’s an equal opportunity clean-up guy.”
But just as quickly as Cruz cleans the walls, the perpetrators strike back.
“I think they have a GPS tracker on me,” he joked.
According to Cruz, two of the locations he hits most are an alley near the on Horner Street and a wall along the railroad tracks that stretches from Whipple Road to Smith Street.
Cruz keeps a digital archive of each and every piece of graffiti he cleans up. It’s how the city keeps track of repeat vandals and assesses the damage an individual has done to the city. When taggers are nabbed, they pay fines based on the individual counts of vandalism, roughly the cost of paint to clean them and Cruz’s time.
Police make a number of arrests for graffiti, Horner said. Recently, they arrested a graffiti artist from Germany who came to the Bay Area to vandalize.
“We’ve knocked down graffiti tremendously in the city,” Cruz said.
Born In Guam, but All Union City
Cruz came to Union City from Guam in 1972 with his parents and his eight brothers and sisters. He graduated from , where his two children would eventually attend. After two years in the Navy working on hydraulic systems of jet plane landing gear, he returned to Union City in 1994.
He took over minor graffiti busting duties in 2003 and was named coordinator of special projects in 2005.
The 53-year-old wears black work boots and navy bunker pants under a white doctor’s coat that doubles as a notepad when he is in the field.
Despite a solid build that suggests a collection of letterman jackets and trophies in the garage, Cruz asked his high school football coach to put him in the band after his first and only practice. His black, Rat Pack-era hair is sprayed backward and has become a highlight for passing police officers who, when seeing Cruz on the streets, don’t hesitate to mock him by running their hands through their hair like a comb.
But his sense of humor ends at what kind of hair spray he uses.
“Don’t ask me to paint your house. I know how to paint, but come on now, dude,” he said half jokingly.
He and his wife, who is an accountant, make it a rule to never bring their work life home. He enjoys his portable solitaire game or taking out his young grandson, whom he sees every day.
“My philosophy is that as soon as I leave the front gate, everything that happened at work stays there," he said. "I start a whole new work, being a husband, being a father.”
Although he has seen and removed everything from chalk on dumpsters to explicit graffiti murals, he is still uncertain about what drives people to deface property.
“I wonder about those who do get caught and those who have to serve time or have to do community service. I wonder if they go back and do the same thing. I always wonder if they ever say tagging isn’t worth it.”
Cruz can retire in two years. And if there’s a position available on the city council or the planning commission then, he is more than interested in running.
“If Wayne ever wanted to run for a public position after he retires, I would encourage it. He loves Union City and enjoys what he does,” said his supervisor, Ray Fitch. “I believe he truly cares about the city he lives in. I know he follows the local politics, so it might be a good fit for him.”
“I know their needs, I know their wants and I know their opinions,” Cruz said on his way back to the Public Works office after removing graffiti along Union City Boulevard.
His eyes never stopped scanning the road for another project.
Zoneil Maharaj contributed to this report.